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Information for those interested in ancient cultures
in the American Southwest

Assorted potsherds PI - PIIPottery


Pottery (ceramics) is one of the more useful tools that archaeologists have at their disposal to date or interpret sites in the Four Corners region. A very durable material, pottery can provide information on changing cultural patterns, occupation dates and trade networks.

Pottery is thought to have first appeared in the southwest around 200 A.D. and was widespread by the early 6th century. According to Stephen Plog, bulky and fragile pottery can be seen as an indicator of a change to a more sedentary life style.

All Anasazi pottery was made by coiling. Wet balls of clay that had been mixed with crushed rock, sand or crushed pottery were rolled out into long strands. These strands would be added one on top of the other around a preformed base, the sides of the pot getting higher with each strand. The coils were then smoothed to seal the walls. Once the pot was formed, it was dried then fired. For a well illustrated, detailed description of this process, refer to Stephen Plog's Ancient Peoples of the Southwest, pp. 66-7.

Early Basketmaker III (BMIII) pottery was a plain grey ware. Mostly simple bowls; large mouthed cooking vessels; and large, narrow-mouthed jars. The BMIII people incorporated other shapes as well including duck shaped containers, gourd shapes and "doughnut shaped containers with spouts. They began adding simple painted lines and dots, using black paint to contrast with the grey body. The paint was derived from plant juices that carbonized and turned black during firing. To the east of the Four Corners Region, mineral pigments were used, usually iron.

By the Pueblo I period pottery was well established and varied. Thin, straight lines, triangles, and dots or "ticking" were common elements. Neck-banded corrugation was common - the upper coils of the pot were left pinched but not smoothed on the outer surface. Red on orange and black on red types also appear during the PI time period.

By the Pueblo II and Pueblo III, the decorated wares become more varied and numerous with regional styles becoming increasingly distinct. More and more fully corrugated pottery is being made compared to the plain wares. In the case of cooking vessels, the entire outer surface would be pinched but not smoothed, creating a corrugated surface. While it does have an aesthetic appeal it also increases the amount of surface area exposed to the heat of a cooking fire.

Where to see it

The best places to view pottery examples will be regional and Park museums.

The museums at Mesa Verde NP in Colorado, Chaco Canyon NHP in New Mexico, and at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Colorado all house significant Anasazi pottery collections, as does the museum at Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, UT.

You can find pottery fragments (potsherds) in the canyons, mesa tops and areas in between. Each sherd is "diagnostic" to archaeologists - it's location, when mapped, can give clues to trade routes and settlement patterns. Information on how the pot was made and decorated can help provide a date to the site it is associated with. Remember that when you do find a piece, you can pick it up, examine it, photograph or draw it, but please put it back where you found it. Don't dig or scrape around looking for more of them.